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This Week In History

The Second Temple for Venus Erycina. April 23, 181 BC.

The Capitoline Hill was earlier known as Mons Saturnius, dedicated to the god Saturn. The word Capitolium first referred to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus later built here, and afterwards it was used for the whole hill (and even other temples of Jupiter on other hills), thus Mons Capitolinus (the adjective noun of Capitolium). In an etiological myth, ancient sources connect the name to caput (“head”, “summit”) and the tale was that, when laying the foundations for the temple, the head of a man was found, some sources even saying it was the head of some Tolus or Olus. The Capitolium was regarded by the Romans as indestructible, and was adopted as a symbol of eternity.

At this hill, the Sabines, creeping to the Citadel, were let in by the Roman maiden Tarpeia. For this treachery, Tarpeia was the first to be punished by being flung from a steep cliff overlooking the Roman Forum. This cliff was later named the Tarpeian Rock after the Vestal Virgin, and became a frequent execution site. The Sabines, who immigrated to Rome following the Rape of the Sabine Women, settled on the Capitoline. The Vulcanal (Shrine of Vulcan), an 8th-century BC sacred precinct, occupied much of the eastern lower slopes of the Capitoline, at the head of what would later become the Roman Forum. The summit was the site of a temple for the Capitoline Triad, started by Rome’s fifth kingTarquinius Priscus (r. 616-579 BC), and completed by the seventh and last kingTarquinius Superbus (535–496 BC). It was considered one of the largest and the most beautiful temples in the city (although little now remains).

On April 23, 181 BC Lucius Porcius Licinus dedicated the temple to Venus Erycina at the Colline gate that his father had vowed during a campaign against the Ligurians three years earlier. At first glance, this event seems unremarkable; it had long been the practice in Rome for new temples to be built following a vow made by a general on campaign, and sons had previously dedicated temples vowed by their fathers.

Most obviously, Rome already had one temple to this goddess, The Temple of Venus Erycina on the Capitoline Hill was built by the dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus. He was appointed dictator after the disastrous Battle of Trasimene in 217 BC, during the Second Punic War, and promised this temple to Venus after consulting the Sibylline Books, hoping thereby to reverse his fate.

The goddess herself is not a typical Roman deity, but rather an incarnation of a Sicilian goddess. Why would Romans build a second temple to the same goddess only 34 years after the erection of the first one? Why to this particular goddess? These questions find their answers in the matter of multiple temples dedicated to the same divinity during a major transitional period in the Roman Republic.

The first temple to Venus Erycina presented a special case already, constructed during the crisis of Hannibal´s invasion of Italy and involving a consultation of the Sibylline Books and the installation of a foreign deity inside the pomerium for the first time ever. Yet, Hannibal had long since been defeated when the second temple was built, and Licinius had a wide range of deities to whom choose to vow a temple, son there must have been a purpose in his decision.

Many of the events of the 180´s had separated individuals or groups into various categories, and deliberately created exclusions on many levels. Bacchic worshippers throughout Italy had been isolated and repressed. The Books of Numa had been ritually excluded from Roman society by a formal sacrifice in the comitium. Individual magistrates had been marked out from the collegial body of the Senate and used as examples so that the Senate could reassert its supremacy. By 181, the Senate had to restore a sense of harmony and cooperation that was essential to the success of the Roman enterprise. A temple to Venus Erycina to straddle the Roman/non-Roman boundary, as the uniter of disparate categories, offered a prime opportunity to accomplish this goal. Through this single goddess, the Senate could not only indicate its willingness to assimilate foreign traditions, but also to work together with its magistrates. The repression of the cult of Bacchus had affected women, the lower classes and the non-Roman inhabitants of Italy, so the same message of conciliation and unity could be conveyed to them by this new cult.

 

 

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